HREI: Where different is safe

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The Human Rights Education Institute in Coeur d’Alene may be one of the best kept secrets in the area. And some who do know of it don’t really know what the institute does.

“There is definitely confusion in the community about what we do,” said executive director Jeanette Laster.

The goal of the non-profit institute is to celebrate diversity and human rights by educating, raising awareness and recognizing the value of all humanity, Laster said. To that end the institute hosts exhibits, welcomes students to the facility and sends staff out to K-12 classrooms in Eastern Washington, North Idaho and Montana to teach compassion and the importance of diversity.

One of their programs is on bullying prevention, Laster said, which looks different depending on the grade level. For high school students, it’s more like a mental wellness program.

The institute wants to educate people on all types of diversity, including socio-economic status, LGBTQ status and other marginalized groups.

“Diversity is not limited to your race and your color,” she said, adding that at HREI people can discuss any topic and feel safe while doing so.

“It’s a place where people can open dialogue and have real conversations,” she said.

As part of its education mission, the institute has traveling trunks that include a variety of photos, artifacts and other items having to do with other cultures, including Hispanic and Native American cultures.

The trunks include reference sheets, lesson plans and arts and crafts projects, as well as authentic artifacts.

“We worked hard with actual Native American tribal members to create these boxes to make sure they’re accurate,” she said.

The trunks can also be sent to a school without an institute staffer or volunteer, Laster said. It all depends on what the school needs.

“When we’re asked to come into a classroom, it has to do with compassion or one of our traveling trunks,” she said. “Those programs are really important. Our diversity is changing rapidly in our area.”

Laster said she believes that many racial issues have their root in fear and lack of understanding. “Education is one way we can combat hate,” she said.

The institute is all the more important in Coeur d’Alene because of the area’s history with the Aryan Nations and white supremacy. Laster said she routinely gets phone calls from people considering moving here who are worried about the area’s history.

“I assure them that we have practices in place and the community embraces our education practices,” she said.

Another program the institute runs is the Human Library. The institute invites a variety of people to speak, which can include an ex-addict, a police officer and a female veteran married to a Muslim. “They have great stories,” she said. “It’s a way to break down barriers and fears.”

The institute depends on private donations, grants and fundraisers to stay open. It’s housed in a large historic building at 414 W. Fort Grounds Drive in Coeur d’Alene that’s expensive to maintain. Laster said she worries about having enough funding to keep running.

“It’s difficult to fundraise in this political climate,” she said. “We are non-profit. We do not participate in politics in any way.”

Laster said her focus is on human rights and diversity, not any political viewpoints.

“Human rights are for everyone,” she said. “Those many be issues on a political realm, but not basic human rights.”

Laster never planned to get into the work she’s doing now. She worked as a community programmer for a city in California for decades, planning parades and running a large park. She moved to the area to take a job as the aquatic director of the new Kroc Center when it opened.

After a few years there and a few years at United Way, Laster found herself taking a job at the institute as the program coordinator. She said that when she was in school, she was always the one on the playground looking out for other kids.

“I was always about equality and fairness,” she said. “I was always the one who stood up to people. That’s what I love about HREI.”

She had often worked with youth in California and realized when she took the job at the institute that she had found something that was missing from her life – working with kids.

“I was drawn to the work, the face-to-face work,” she said.

She became the executive director last year when the position became vacant and has continued sticking up for the little kid on the playground.

Working with children and teens is important because the youth are our future, Laster said.

“They have a desire to change the world,” she said. “That’s what keeps me here.”

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